Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Singapore beyond Lee Kuan Yew

Ho Kwon Ping

IT IS perhaps Mr Lee Kuan Yew's fate, as one of very few successful nation-founders who retired on their own accord, to have periodic questions asked about his legacy. After all, the overwhelming majority of revolutionary leaders or nation-founders had more courage than wisdom, and few retired willingly.

The considerable earlier achievements of Mr Mao Zedong, Mr Fidel Castro, or even Mr Robert Mugabe, were severely diminished by their clinging to power long past their peak. In modern history, perhaps only China's Mr Deng Xiaoping and Mr Lee Kuan Yew knew not only when to retire, but how to guide their countries to a sustainable, stable future.

Mr Deng has long passed from China's scene, but the country remains firmly focused on Mr Deng's vision of a peaceful and prosperous country, attaining its rightful place in the world. In Singapore, Mr Lee remains a vibrant mentor, though slower of gait and mellower in temperament.

So the question is: When he is no longer around, how will Singapore fare? Will it, as the political scientist Professor Samuel Huntington, once predicted, that the system created by Mr Lee "will follow him to his grave"?

This was the broad thrust of a recent forum entitled "Singapore Beyond Lee Kuan Yew". As one of the speakers, I raised two questions. First, whether political renewal within the People's Action Party (PAP) can produce leaders of sufficient calibre that people will continue to support the unique one-party-dominant system characteristic of the Singapore system of governance. Because if they do not, we will be sailing in uncharted waters.

And second, should the waters ever turn choppy, can tomorrow's generation find their way through the storm, with or without the PAP? In other words, how will Singapore society and its people fare and fend for themselves beyond Mr Lee?

Let's take the first issue of political renewal within the PAP. For Singapore's sake, the ruling PAP had better be sustainably competent, because there is no dependable, tested opposition party as fallback for the country. The price to Singapore of the PAP's extraordinarily successful half-century of governance is that the system is now particularly vulnerable to the internal self-renewal of the PAP.

Will the Singapore system of self-renewal work beyond Mr Lee and after the present generation of leaders depart the scene? The only possible answer, since we have not yet crossed that bridge, is that we do not know. But future leaders will certainly not enjoy the huge political legitimacy arising from approval by Mr Lee.

The risk to successful self-renewal in Singapore beyond Mr Lee is not only the paucity of talent and the difficulty of identifying, recruiting and grooming leaders.

Another risk, over time, is the spectre of internal schisms within the PAP. The party's extraordinary cohesion over 50 years is due not only to the PAP's compelling vision and its centrist positioning, but owes much to the forceful personality of Mr Lee. Whether factionalism can be kept in check after this present generation of leaders including its mentor, have left the scene, is an imponderable. But given its past record, the chances are reasonably good.

The second question I raised was this: If the PAP, for whatever reason, fails to lead Singapore, will Mr Lee's legacy then unravel? Or can the people of Singapore muddle their way through even if the leadership renewal of the PAP fails to deliver what it has done for the past 50 years?

To borrow from United States President Barack Obama, I think the answer is "yes, we can". Mr Lee's greatest legacy, I believe, is that the Singapore which he so passionately shaped will outlive not only him, but even his own party should that ever come to pass.

Perhaps because he is the quintessential realist with no illusions about the difficulty of creating a genuine nation out of different ethnic groups with their own traditions, and still recognises that the fault lines of race and religion continue to lurk in the background, Mr Lee has made nation-building one of the single most critical political imperatives of his leadership. And he has largely succeeded.

No Singaporean or foreigner questions today that we have a shared identity, common values and aspirations. This is no small achievement.

And so, 44 years after nationhood, the acute sense of vulnerability which suffused the Lee Kuan Yew era with an urgent dynamism, is inevitably giving way to a more relaxed and confident nation.

Will that translate into a complacent and cocky generation, ultimately descending into the hubris which will destroy Mr Lee's legacy? Or will a sense of "concerned gungho-ness", shaped by the collective memory of vulnerability but inspired by the promise that theirs is a destiny they will continue to shape on their own, define my children's generation?

Contrary to popular stereotype, young people today are not apathetic. They may be disinterested in electoral politics, but they are increasingly involved in civil society and community issues. They seek expression not in Speakers Corner but in alternative digital media and social networking sites. Singaporeans studying overseas remain engaged about Singapore issues and many are returning home, no doubt partly because of dire job prospects in the West, but also because their sense of belonging is strong.

Visitors to Singapore marvel at how we have managed fundamental diversities of race and religion so well. But now that we are a single, cohesive nation, there is a need to encourage a different kind of diversity — not in race or religion — but in outlook and analysis.

Thankfully, the once-rigid Singapore system is beginning to cultivate and celebrate diversity in our schools and universities, in social and cultural life.

The definition and measure of success and achievement is also broadening. In my interaction with my children and their friends, or with Singapore Management University students, I sense that young Singaporeans are responding positively to these trends. I do not believe that their sense of ownership over their country is any less than the youth of other countries.

In short, the Singapore of Lee Kuan Yew is changing — as it should and as he would have wished it to. By responding to tomorrow's generation, today's leadership is ensuring Singapore's survival.

This is an edited extract of a speech delivered at a forum entitled "Singapore Beyond Lee Kuan Yew: Institutionalising the Singapore Way". It was organised by the Asia Journalism Fellowship programme, an initiative of Temasek Foundation and the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

From TODAY, Voices – Wednesday, 22-April-2009


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